Lessons in distributed team leadership, from the Navy

A former Navy Installations Commander with 30 years of service offers tips on managing distributed teams

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many senior leaders have asked how to keep their teams motivated and productive, or how to mentor, check in, and manage their teams

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about leadership and how to build and incentivize globally dispersed teams during my 30-year career in the U.S. Navy. My last job in uniform was serving as Navy Installations Commander, where I was responsible for making sure everything ran smoothly at the Navy’s 71 bases around the world. 

Not only was I the landlord for more than 100,000 buildings and structures, I was also responsible for ensuring that the programs that run on these bases—from airfields and ports to maintenance and training facilities to childcare and fitness facilities—were staffed and resourced by a distributed workforce of more than 53,000 military and civilian personnel. 

Our mission was rewarding, foundational to the Navy’s mission, and challenging. Every hour of every day, somewhere around the world, ships, submarines, and aircraft were pulling into and out of one of my facilities. Some would say that the U.S. Navy is the poster child of a distributed workforce.

In all industries, COVID-19 has prompted leadership to break with certain norms. For example, I’ll be the first to admit that before COVID-19 we were much more restrained on permissive telework. The necessary remote work tools were either not authorized or out of reach. The past year of remote work has clearly changed that. 

As organizations now chart the course for their workforce in our new normal, I offer some reflections and lessons learned from my time in the Navy to help others navigate the new challenges facing their teams.

Make sure the airwaves are open for two-way conversations with your team…

When teams are distributed and under their own stressors, the importance of communication between leaders and their teams (always known to be critical) cannot be overstated. While the distributed work environment may have made informal office interactions more challenging, virtual platforms still offer an easy method to check in with your team without risk of COVID-19 exposure. 

Many firms offer town-hall-like sessions, or more focused events, that allow leaders to answer questions from their teams. This is the virtual equivalent of what we in the Navy called “walking the deckplates.” Setting a regular time to communicate is a mission that cannot be lost in the churn of everything else going on.

…but make sure to communicate with intent

A key caveat is to have a purpose for communicating. That purpose can be to review key objectives for the week or just to catch up. Clarity and transparency in meeting intentions will keep people focused, the team connected, and help stave off Zoom fatigue. One added benefit of the video platforms is the ability to stay attuned to the tone and tenor of the workforce. Just keep videoconferences running on time—and once in a while, cancel them to give your team time back! 

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The most significant challenge of virtual leadership may be carving out the time for feedback, especially for those hard conversations with teammates who may not be meeting standards. Those sessions need to be done with empathy and understanding—including an awareness of what working from home is like for these individuals.

Respect the night owls and early birds, and lean in to the flexibility that remote work provides…

The pandemic has taught us that people can be just as, if not more, productive through remote work. But this also means that some people will break the traditional 9-to-5 window to get things done on their own time. Many people are juggling responsibilities well beyond the norm—like parents simultaneously getting their 10-year-old focused on a virtual lesson while hopping into meetings of their own. 

COVID-19 has opened a portal into other people’s lives, which reminds us that personal lives should be respected and balanced with work requirements. When appropriate, leaders should strive to be flexible in the support they provide, be it an alternate workspace or a work schedule. 

If non-traditional hours work for your team, great. HR structures often strictly define the workday, especially for government employees. Perhaps there is now an opportunity to build job descriptions that allow for variance in time and attendance and are more focused on objective performance.

…but don’t expect others to live by your clock

This said, the increased flexibility may have a negative impact on members of the team who are not working the same hours. This is a bit of a balancing act. The best time for you to knock out some work may be on weekends or after hours. That may work for you, but it may not be received well by a recipient on a different timeline. Trying to keep routine communications to routine work hours certainly helps. There will always be circumstances when urgency and criticality of a project force interactions outside normal work hours. The trick is in determining when and what meets that criteria. 

I have tried but was often not as successful as I should have been on this. The COVID-19 landscape means everyone has to be hypersensitive to time and impact. Ensuring expectations are clear is a definite starting point. Many tools can help with this, like scheduling an email written over the weekend to launch on Monday morning rather than Saturday night. Simply prefacing an email with “Not urgent” or “Urgent” sets the stage. It’s helpful to discuss with your team about when you expect them to be available and responsive and when you do not. 

Expand your work environment with a mix of at-home work, remote work, and the organizational base…

Different work environments have their pros and cons. Perhaps a person can focus more easily at home without the distractions of an office. Maybe an organization thrives from in-person team brainstorming sessions. An organization can strategically use flexible offices as a suitable middle ground to bridge the gap. 

Flexible offices don’t require the same costly, 24/7 investment as an office footprint would, but there is value in having a productive work environment outside of someone’s house. The socialization benefit, as well as practical things like IT support, are key. Flexible offices can bring a variety of perspectives under one roof, or create an innovation spark. 

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In the Navy, security, first responders, and many training and maintenance capabilities must be done on-base. But many other functions don’t need to be. Government employees conducting administrative and non-sensitive work could benefit from remote and alternative workplaces that are provided by commercial entities. 

The use of leased space is not a new concept for the military services. But why pay 24/7 for leased space when an alternative might be on-demand or “pay based on use” workstations and conference rooms? One might even go so far as to say that the commingling of commercial and government work might breed innovation and partnerships. Another consideration, especially for Gen Z employees, is the draw of working in a non-traditional environment. This could impact retention. 

A workforce that spans many locations spurs innovation by introducing a diversity of thought, ideas, and cultures. Multiple perspectives help to solve problems in new ways, ultimately leading to mission success.

…but conduct a deep dive on costs and plan strategically first 

Adjustments to working environments involve performing a cost analysis and assessing roles best suited to different environments. From my experience in the Navy, accounting for total ownership costs requires defendable data and a full understanding of second- and third-order cost drivers that are often overlooked. These include things like utilities, custodial costs, COVID-19 sanitization protocols, maintenance, and more. 

Every organization’s structure and degree of dispersed work is unique. In this environment, leaders are challenged to both meet performance goals and to take care of their workforce. On the people management side, leaders will need to ensure that roles which may be out of sight have governing productivity oversight metrics, and that employees are appropriately recognized for their performance. Even with the deployment of vaccines, organizations will need to navigate these murky waters for much of next year. 

At the end of the day, returning to work requires flexibility that most of us never envisioned in the workplace. That flexibility will be a force multiplier and can even result in some cost savings. But for it to work, leaders will need to commit to transparent communications and to helping their employees succeed. Leaders can learn from our remote working experience in order to strategically build a team that can operate smoothly no matter where they sit.

Vice Admiral Mary Jackson (retired) most recently served as the Commander, Navy Installations Command, for over three years, where she led the Navy’s shore enterprise—comprised of more than 53,000 personnel at 10 Navy Regions and 71 installations around the world. Among other high-profile assignments, VADM Jackson commanded Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval installation in the world, located in Norfolk, VA, and the destroyer, USS McFaul (DDG 74). Her personal awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and various other personal and unit awards. Vice Admiral Jackson is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

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